Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Director: Charlie Chaplin
The 12 two-reeler comedies gathered together on this box set represented a turning point for Charlie Chaplin. It’s not just that the contract he signed with Mutual made him, at the time, the highest paid entertainer in the world. These pieces also show him honing his art – by trial and error and under pressure of time – and taking great strides forward in confidence and sophistication.
The first couple of two-reelers, The Floorwalker and The Fireman, are both still steeped in the influence of the Keystone Cops and Victorian melodrama. They feature stylized, vaudevillian makeup, heavy plots packed with intrigue and lots of pratfalls and boots up bottoms. Only with the third film, The Vagabond, does the distinctive Chaplinesque combination of humour and pathos come into play. Suddenly you’re in the laughter and tears world of City Lights and The Gold Rush. A penniless musician rescues a Cinderella-like gypsy girl who is being violently abused by the thuggish leader of her clan – there’s some brilliant action, a tender evocation of the world of the have-nots, the theme of goodness going unrewarded.
After this little gem, the next five films feel like a step back, but they all have something going for them. One AM is a virtuoso solo piece in which Chaplin brings his knack for playing drunks to the screen, while The Count and The Pawnshop show him beginning to move to a more situational kind of humour. Behind the Screen is interesting because it’s a film about making a film, shot in Chaplin’s very own Lone Star studio. Here you see an increasing realism in terms of makeup and hair-styles, and there’s a brilliant gag in which Chaplin puts on a knight’s helmet to protect himself from a noxious smell of raw onions. The Rink, meanwhile, is a fast-paced and intricate comedy which makes use of bigger, more expansive sets and which allows Chaplin to display his roller-skating skills.
At this point Chaplin suddenly made a trio of masterpieces. In Easy Street, he plays a derelict who turns a new leaf, joins the police force and finds himself tasked with cleaning up a rough, no-go neighbourhood. Its a role that shows Chaplin the performer at his most sympathetic, but you’re also aware of a new confidence in Chaplin the director, with tighter editing and a greater variety of shots. This is even more apparent in The Immigrant, whose set-pieces have a new boldness and visual impact – the early vignette of the Tramp retching in tandem with a seasick Russian, or the wild rocking of the ship’s galley that was achieved by mounting the set on rollers. Perhaps even better, although less well-known, that either of these two films is the last of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, The Adventurer, in which he plays an escaped convict who comes to the aid of some drowning women. Again, it’s another leap forward in Chaplin’s skills as a filmmaker. The early exterior scenes, as the title character is pursued by the police over a rocky shoreline, feature some of his most complex, visually dramatic compositions so far, and the first sighting of Chaplin, when he suddenly pokes his head out of the sand dune where he’s been hiding, has a wonderful Beckett-like absurdity. Later on, there’s a spirited chase scene, with Chaplin darting around like a cat, and a marvellous gag where he’s trying to schmooze a girl while shaking a block of ice-cream down his trouser leg.
Over recent decades, Chaplin’s reputation has suffered a decline from the world-wide adulation he once used to enjoy, but the work the BFI has done in bringing together these 12 enjoyable shorts in glorious hi-def should go a long way towards making his work accessible to new generations. 8/10
These HD transfers have been painstakingly assembled from fine grain positives, nitrate prints and other high quality elements, restoring the comedies to a state of completeness that many of them have not enjoyed for many decades. Visually, there’s some variation in sharpness, but on the whole the result is a clear, pleasant picture, with deep inky blacks. In The Fireman, for instance, the exteriors look very fresh, and there’s a lovely velvety sheen to the chequered dress of the socialite who visits the fire station. In The Cure, you now appreciate small details such as the faint stripes on Chaplin’s shirt, while in The Adventurer there’s a strong contrast between the black and white of his stripy convict outfit and the backdrop of craggy grey rocks. In several instances, the picture is so sharp that you see things you don’t want to see – the flies crawling over the picnic in The Vagabond and the kitchen tablecloth in The Count, and the way Edna Purviance’s skirt teems with insects in The Immigrant. 8/10
5-min newsreel of Chaplin travelling across the Atlantic on a White Star Liner (odd to see him without the moustache) and being mobbed on his return to Britain. ~ 9-min interview with composer Carl Davis, who talks about how he became interested in scoring silence films and gives some background on the BFI’s Mutual comedies project. ~ A choice of soundtracks for each of the films ~ 12 audio commentaries by various critics that be accessed in the individual films’ audio options. These comment on the restorations and point out long-lost material, supply background info and bios of Chaplin’s cast of actors, discuss recurring themes, draw attention to his use of trick shots and other techniques, and generally make a very pleasant accompaniment to the films. 8/10